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INFLUENCE OF THE BABYLONIAN EXILE ON THE
RELIGION OF ISRAEL
PROFESSOR GEORGE A. BARTON, PH.D.
Bryn Mawr, Pa.
Disaster and sorrow compel either a soul or a nation to seek
anew the foundations of life. Times of sorrow are accordingly
times of religious growth. The Babylonian exile was no exception.
Indeed, the influence of this exile upon the religion of Israel was
enormous. This was in part due to the fact that the exile was the
external event necessary to crystallize the results of prophetic
influences which had been at work for a long time, but it was also
in part due to the deepening and clarifying of religious perception
which disaster and sorrow bring.
The influence of the Babylonian exile is discernible in three
great realms of life: (i) in the apprehension of religious truth;
(2) in the outward organization of the religious life; and (3) in
the standards of public morals. We shall endeavor briefly to
treat each of these points, but before doing so a few words are
necessary with reference to the nature of the exile itself.
It is often popularly supposed that at the time of the Baby-
lonian exile Israel's life was completely broken off, and that the
whole population was transported en masse to Babylonia. Such
certainly was not the case. Nebuchadrezzar made two depor-
tations of the higher officials, the priests, and the more wealthy
citizens. One of these was in 598, the other in 586. Counting the
families of those who were deported, probably not more than
25,000 or 30,000 people, all told, were transported. The great
mass of the population, which in every country constitutes the
poorer classes, was left in Palestine. The life of the poor thus left
behind, robbed of their leaders, their capital desolated, and their
land's trade ruined, must have been very hard. The most of
those capable of leading in thought and action were with the
exiles in Babylonia. It thus came about that, though the life of
370 THE BIBLICAL WORLD
the nation was not absolutely uprooted, the exiles exerted upon
the future a degree of influence far out of proportion to their
The influence of the exile upon the apprehension of religious
truth is disclosed in the study of one or two of the greatest per-
sonalities of the period — Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah. These
were the two greatest thinkers of the time, and in their presenta-
tion of religious truth we ascertain the forefront of religious thought
— the "new theology" of the period.
In the years of struggle while the exile was impending Jere-
miah had under its shadow grasped the great truth that" religion
is inward in character, that it is a matter of the heart, and that
no outward temple or ritual is necessary to its maintenance.
This was a great step forward. Little more than a century before
Isaiah had declared that Jerusalem was necessary to the worship
of Yahweh and that he would defend it (Isa. 31:5). Jeremiah
on the contrary declared that Yahweh would himself destroy
the Holy City (see 22:1-12), and that in the future God's
covenant with his people was to be a covenant of the heart, not
an outward covenant of stones and ceremonies (Jer. 31:33). This
great step forward in religious thinking was most timely. In
the years to come when the sanctuary was desolate, and when many
Jews were exiles in distant lands, it was this faith that religion was
a matter of inward attitude rather than outward institution that
kept Hebrew faith ahve. Without it the Judaism of later times
could never have been born.
Closely connected with the great truth of the inwardness of
religion are three other great religious truths first set forth by
Jeremiah under the shadow of the exile which are of prime impor-
tance. These are theoretical monotheism, or the recognition that
the gods of the heathen are figments of the imagination, the per-
ception that God is as willing to welcome penitent Gentiles as
penitent Jews to his worship, and the fact of individual respon-
sibility in morals.
Practical monotheism was from the time of Amos the working
theory of all of Israel's prophets, but until Jeremiah no one had
declared the non-existence of heathen deities. That step Jere-
BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 371
miah took, telling his contemporaries that such gods were mere
"vanities" or figments of the imagination (Jer. 10:15; 14:22).
Of course he did not succeed in persuading all his contemporaries
to adopt this view, and the older view, that a heathen deity repre-
sented some sort of a reality, lingered on for centuries. St. Paul,
though he agreed with Jeremiah in principle (I Cor. 8:4 ff.), was
still unable to shake himself entirely free from the older view
(I Cor. 10:20). Nevertheless the insight of Jeremiah was very
significant, and did much to clarify religious thinking.
Similarly Jeremiah's conception of the attitude of Yahweh
toward the Gentile nations was much in advance of that of Isaiah.
Isaiah (10:5 ff.) had represented Assyria as existing simply as a
rod with which Yahweh could chastise Israel, and just as a father,
when the whipping is over, breaks the useful switch and throws
it away, so Yahweh, when his correction of Israel was completed,
would break his rod, Assyria, and cast her aside. The thought
underlying this was that God loves Israel only, and that all other
nations exist only for her benefit. Jeremiah, on the other hand,
pictures a time when all nations shall awaken to the fact that their
gods are vanities and lies and shall come with confession to Yahweh
and shall be welcomed by him (16 : 19-21).
In early Semitic life the family was such a unit that it stood or
fell together. A good example of this is the story of the punish-
ment of Achan in Josh., chap. 7. The prophets of the eighth cen-
tury had denounced the sins of the nation rather than the sins of
individuals. Individual sins seemed to gain their significance
from their effect on the nation. Jeremiah, on the other hand,
enunciates the great principle of individual responsibility in morals
(31:29, 30), and in this he was cordially seconded by Ezekiel (see
Ezek., chap 18). How much the recognition of this principle
meant to a healthy moral and religious life cannot be overesti-
mated. These four great steps forward in the apprehension of the
true principles of religion and morals had been taken by Jeremiah
under the impending shadow of the exile. His sensitive spirit,
because of its premonitions of impending change, grasped these
more spiritual and fundamental truths.
In one respect the Second Isaiah, some forty years later, enlarged
372 THE BIBLICAL WORLD
the theory of religion. The contribution of this prophet to reli-
gious thought relates to the solution of the problem of suffering.
As in exile he brooded over the reason why the leaders of his
people had been torn from their homes and the independence of
his land destroyed, he saw in these events the fulfilment of a
divine mission. Like Jeremiah he believed that Yahweh would
welcome the coming of the heathen to himself, but he went beyond
Jeremiah in believing that God had chosen Israel to be his mis-
sionary, and the sufferings involved in the uprooting of the people
which had marred the nation's beauty and left only the unlovely
stump of her peasant population in the dry ground, was in part
vicarious. Israel had suffered at the Lord's hand double for all
her sins (Isa. 40:2). The half of this was for the sins of the
nations. Later (52:15) he pictures the kings of these nations as
standing astonished at Israel's sufferings, and then in a flash of
insight perceiving that "he hath borne our griefs and carried our
sorrows" (53:4 ff.).
It was thus that this unnamed preacher took up the great
thought of Jeremiah as to God's universal care for the nations
and made it illuminate the old faith that Israel was the chosen
people. She had been conceited, thinking that she was chosen
for her superior worth; her real choice was that through knowledge
of God and through suffering she might win the world to him. This
great flash of insight was directly bom out of the crushing pain
of the exile.
It in no way detracts from this great conception that it was
unheeded by the prophet's contemporaries and plays almost no
part in the post-exilic thought. One writer only, the author
of the magnificent missionary tract, the Book of Jonah, took it up
and urged it. Apart from this the idea waited till the sufferings
of the Ideal Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth, enabled men to read the
prophet's words in their light. They nevertheless stand as one of
the profoundest glimpses ever obtained by a human mind into the
great truth of the social oneness of man, and of the great fact in
this social fabric which we call humanity that it is along the nerves
of suffering and of sacrifice that the redeeming influences of the
higher life are conveyed.
BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 373
Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah were two men unusually
endowed with the power of thought and with sympathetic religious
insight. To trace the influence of the exile upon the outward
organization of Israel's religion other personages must be studied.
The first of these is Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was a priest of a sufficiently prominent family so that
Nebuchadrezzar had selected him for deportation with the first
body of exiles in 598. Five years later he became a prophet and
before the city fell in 586 he had won a commanding position by
his utterances. Among the exiles at Tel Abib he urged the
same principles and attitudes of mind which Jeremiah was urging
in Jerusalem. After the city fell he continued for some fifteen
years to be the counselor and comforter of the exiles, and before
his death drew up a new plan for the reconstruction of the politi-
cal and religious life of Israel, when the opportunity should come
to return. We find his plan in Ezek., chaps. 40-48.
In studying Ezekiel' s plan one is at first surprised to see how
much detail is given concerning the temple and its ritual. These
things assume in his book an importance which seems to bring
reUgion back from the regions of the heart where Jeremiah had
placed it, to the realm of outer ceremonies. It should be remem-
bered, however, that in Ezekiel the afflatus of the prophet was
translated through the education and traditions of a priest. It
must also be remembered that the marriage between prophetic
ideals and ritualistic requirement had been begun in the middle of
the preceding century by the authors of the Deuteronomic law.
It had been perceived, perhaps, by Isaiah the son of Amoz him-
self, that the world was not ready for a spiritual religion without
ritual, and so the Deuteronomic legislator or legislators had drawn
up a code which reduced ritual to the smallest possible limits
and eliminated its grossly immoral features.
It was upon this foundation that Ezekiel built, but he regulated
certain detafls of the ritual with greater definiteness. Even
Deuteronomy had permitted the menial work of the sanctuary,
such as making music and slaying the sacrifices, to be performed
by foreign slaves; Ezekiel directed that this should no longer be
so, and out of the descendants of the priests of the old country
374 THE BIBLICAL WORLD
shrines he legislated into existence the class called Levites (see
Some seventy years later Ezekiel's example was followed by
another priest who compiled the code of holiness (Lev., chaps.
17-26), and fifty years later still, by another who composed the
main body of the Priestly Document of the .Pentateuch.
In the period between 621, when Josiah introduced his reform,
and the exile, the struggle to secure the observance of the Deuter-
onomic law had been very severe. Jeremiah and his contempora-
ries had not only had to work against the superstitions of the
common people who inhabited the outlying towns in which shrines
existed, but also against the self-interest of powerful priesthoods
whose livings were cut off by the reform. Large numbers of these
priests had been carried into exile. No doubt such of them as
were not attached to the Deuteronomic reform lost their hold
upon the faith of their fathers and were merged in the heathen life
about them. Some of them, however, even from the country
shrines, chastened by the great disaster of exile became, probably,
converts to the reform. These priests were the guardians of
ancient traditions of ritual as these traditions had been handed
down in various shrines, and in the HoUness Code and the Priestly
Document many of these old traditions found literary and legis-
lative form. The pious exiles who penned them were careful to
mold them to the new spirit. All features which had fostered the
sensual practices of the high places were eliminated. The ritual
finally presented was a ritual purged by prophetic insight ; it made
the social corruption against which the prophets had inveighed
Soon after 450 B.C. (scholars differ at present as to the exact
date) Ezra brought the new law from Babylonia and with Nehe-
miah's aid induced the people in solemn assembly to bind them-
selves to keep it. In this way the exile gave to Israel the law.
It terminated the period of the prophets, and inaugurated the
period of the Pentateuch. The great ideals for which the prophets
had striven had, when reinforced by the disasters of the exile,
purified the ritual, but for the mass their ideal of religion as a
thing of the heart had been abandoned. Religion was a matter of
BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 375
external rule. In individual souls, however, the old ideal was
cherished as the Book of Job and Pss. 50 and 51 witness.
In spite, however, of the theory of religion which underlay the
adoption of the ritual law, the situation was such that it could
not undo the prophetic work altogether. Even in Palestine itself
many lived too far from the temple to often share in its services,
and there were many who continued to live in Babylonia and
other distant lands. These were compelled to make their religion
to some extent a thing of the heart. They could observe many
of the legal rules and could read and meditate upon the law, but
their sacrifices were for the most part necessarily sacrifices of the
heart. In spite, therefore, of the rebuilding of the temple Jere-
miah's doctrine that religion was independent of the sanctuary
was reinforced by the circumstances of the people.
The exile not only changed the organization of Israel's ritual, but
it gave Judah a renovated social life. One has but to visit an excava-
tion of an old Palestinian high place like that of Gezer and look upon
the obscene emblems without number which were presented as
offerings there, and which are themselves witness to the sacrifices
of chastity which were continually made in those places in the
name of religion, to realize what sinks of corruption every high
place in Palestine was down to the year 621. The temple at
Jerusalem was no exception to this rule as II Kings 23:7 testifies.
The reform of Josiah had, no doubt^ checked these corrupting
influences for a time, but Ezekiel bears witness to the fact (Ezek.
8:1 ff.) that such worship was not suppressed. No doubt it con-
tinued to be practiced by the poor who were left in the land, for
we learn from Isa. 65:3, 4, 11 that in the early days after the exile
other old practices were still maintained. As, however, the new
Judah became reorganized and the new law had time to make
itself felt, all this was corrected. These old social sores were
healed; the fountains of corruption dried up and, while lapses
from morality no doubt occurred, as they do in all lands, there
was a great difference in the general social level in this respect
in the days after the exile. Thus the exile profoundly affected
theology, ritual, and morals — the theory of religion, the practice
of worship, and the application of religion to life.
376 THE BIBLICAL WORLD
So deeply did the exile cut into the national life, so wonderful
did the resuscitation of the nation seem, that the memory of it
lingered long to color with bitterness or thankfulness the senti-
ments of later years — bitterness if the thought centered on the
persecutors, thankfulness if it centered on the gracious deliver-
ance Yahweh had wrought. Happily thoughts of the last-men-
tioned variety generally prevailed. We have but one psalm like
the 137th with its pathetic beginning and bitter ending, while
there are several which express the other sentiment. Thus Ps.
Yahweh, thou hast loved thy land,
Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.
Similarly Ps. 124:6 fi.:
Blessed be Yahweh,
Who did not give us a prey to their teeth!
Our soul has escaped like a bird from a fowler's snare ;
The snare is broken and we have escaped.
Also Ps. 126:1 fF.:
When Yahweh brought back the captivity of Zion
We were like them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter
And our tongue with singing.
On the whole the memories of the exile seem to have deepened
Jewish appreciation of Yahweh's goodness and to have contributed
to a sense of gratitude for divine mercies, which must often have
been the basis of consecration to divine service.
Two other influences of the Babylonian exile upon Hebrew
religion should briefly be noted. In Babylonia the Hebrews came
in contact with a fascinating mythological literature. However
much they might be offended by its mythology, the subject-matter
of such poems as the creation epic and the Gilgamesh epic greatly
attracted them. That these had an effect even during the exile
itself is shown by the influence of the Babylonian Creation
epic upon the Priestly writer's account of the creation in Gen.,
chap. I, and by the fact that he adopted the account of the flood.
The flood story was not so significant, however, as it had made
its way westward centuries before and been given to the Hebrews
BABYLONIAN EXILE AND RELIGION OF ISRAEL 377
by y. These Epics were destined in the post-exilic days to exert
a great influence. Poets like the author of Job (see Job 3:8, 9: 13,
and 26:12, 13) and Psalmists, such as the author of Ps. 89 (see
vs. 10), found in this material some of their most telling illustra-
tions. As time went on, too, an allegorical application of these
stories had, as Gunkel has shown, an important influence in shaping
the apocalj^tic expectations of the Jews, leading them to believe
that, as the present heaven and earth were created through con-
flict, upheaval, and struggle, so the new heaven and the new earth
must be inaugurated by a similar conflict with the supreme power
of evil, and by a supernatural cataclysm. Thus in a remote, yet
direct, way the exile helped to transform the messianic expectations
of the Jews from the simple character in which they had been held
by the prophets to the supernatural character that they take on
in the apocalyptic literature.
In still another way the exile exerted an influence upon Israel
for many centuries. This was through the establishment of a
permanent and prosperous colony of Jews in Babylonia. Even
at the early date of the exile the Hebrew evinced that striking
aptitude for business which has characterized him since. Many
who had been transported to Babylonia entered into business
there. The documents found in the business archives of Nippur
reveal many Jewish names among the business men of the Persian
period. These men were faithful to their religion, but were too
prosperous to go back to Palestine. For fifteen hundred years
from their transportation by Nebuchadrezzar these Hebrew com-
munities in Babylonia were known as the Goliuth or "Captivity."
That there were students of the law among them, we have already
seen. In the days of Zechariah this "Captivity" was already
contributing to Jerusalem silver and gold (see Zech. 6:10, 11).
In the time of Nehemiah, Ezra and the law came from the "Cap-
tivity." Such gifts were but the earnest of many which were to
follow. In the time of Herod the Great, Hillel, another great
teacher of the law, was given by Babylonia to Jerusalem. Inter-
ested in all that pertained to their race and reUgion, these wealthy
Babylonian Jews developed schools of the law that influenced the
whole Jewish world, giving finally to their church the Talmud in
378 THE BIBLICAL WORLD
what is, perhaps, its most influential form, the "Babylonian
Perhaps no single event in Hebrew history influenced her
religion more deeply than the Babylonian exile. Of course the
exodus from Egypt and the covenant with Yahweh were more
fundamental, but the Babylonian exile helped more than any
succeeding event to bring these earlier events to their legitimate